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More fire inspectors wanted

Growth and the existing volume of commercial property combine to put years between inspections, the head of Pasco Fire Rescue says.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 4, 2003

An onslaught of growth in Pasco County has left the fire inspector's office so overburdened that many existing commercial buildings go two or three years without a visit.

The solution, says Pasco County Fire Rescue Chief Anthony Lopinto, is more staffing. To pay for that, Lopinto might propose a new fee to be paid by businesses receiving inspections.

Only four employees carry out the needed 20,000 inspections of existing commercial buildings such as malls and restaurants, Lopinto told the County Commission on Tuesday during its meeting at the West Pasco Government Center.

Those inspections should be done annually under state standards. But the inspectors can't keep up with the load because they are constantly working on inspections of new construction, Lopinto said.

"That's telling you we're in bad shape," Lopinto told commissioners.

He said later that he plans to ask the commission during this summer's budget workshops for money to hire more inspectors.

"You can't get to (the 20,000 inspections) not only because of the ratio of inspectors to buildings but . . . (also because of) the recent growth explosion we're experiencing," Lopinto said. "The inspectors are tied up most of their time . . . with the inspection phases of new growth."

Inspectors handled between 4,500 and 5,000 reviews of new construction in 2002, said Pasco County Fire Marshal Larry Whitten. In addition, they must conduct annual inspections under state mandate on more than 300 hospitals, day care businesses, nursing homes, corrections facilities, schools and other public access centers.

"It's overwhelming," Whitten said.

Lopinto said his goal is to get those 20,000 commercial inspections done once a year with more help.

To pay for the new employees, Lopinto said he might ask the commission to pass an ordinance creating new fees to be paid by the businesses being inspected. He's checking with other cities and counties who use them.

His desire to boost personnel numbers started before the fatal fire last week at a Rhode Island night club.

"One of the first questions asked was, 'When was the last time that building was inspected?' " Lopinto said. "They were able to say it was inspected in December."

He wants to be able to say buildings are inspected with yearly frequency if such a catastrophe occurred in Pasco.

"When you make a presence every year, the building owners are more disciplined in what they do," he added. "If you are not there often enough, they can get lazy in the way they stack and block exits."

In New Port Richey, almost all 1,230 businesses are inspected each year, New Port Richey Fire Chief Dan Azzariti said.

In addition to the one employee assigned to the inspection division, the Fire Department is also able to use its fire captains and some lieutenants, who are state certified inspectors, Azzariti said. The city's small size and slower growth rate compared with the county allows the captains and lieutenants to handle inspections between calls.

"Those are the people that put the fires out," he said. "They have a different understanding when they look at something compared to people who don't put out fires for a living."

Lopinto said he wasn't sure the same arrangement would work in the county.

"It's not impossible to have some of the lieutenants on the engine companies certified as inspectors," he said. "But the battalion chiefs would never work. They are just too busy. The call load in the county is much higher than it is within the municipalities. . . . They barely have enough time to visit the stations they are in charge of."

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